Buoyant Munster to hone in on semi-final berth
Dragons v Munster, TG4 & eir Sport, 3.0pm
And now, breathe.
Tonight might have been a relatively mournful Munster occasion, perhaps pondering where it all went wrong in Europe as they desperately scrambled for five points against an execrable Dragons' side to maintain their only remaining title hope.
Instead, the shadow squad being sent out this evening will wallow in a restorative month of positive results and, even if the performance last weekend was fitful, all are armed with a re-invigorated sense of purpose as the Six Nations spotlight swerves attention from domestic fare.
Even amongst their die-hard support, there would have been a natural sense of nervous anticipation ahead of the festive derby programme and the conclusion of European qualification.
The uncertainty in collective and individual form, heightened by the implosion in Castres last month, would have only served to compound the sense of unease amongst the faithful.
However, victories against Connacht, and a stirring effort against Leinster, offered enough fuel and fire to off-set an understandable defeat in Belfast, allowing Johann van Graan's men sufficient momentum to complete the European cycle with the results necessary to guarantee qualification.
For sure, they would have preferred an easier route to the final but, by drawing Edinburgh away, a side who should hold little fear for a Munster team once they match their performance expectations, it is entirely better than the alternative.
And in the PRO 14, Munster are sitting pretty atop their conference, whereas a series of unfathomable results over Christmas might well have pushed them towards mid-table, imperilling not only their play-off hopes but Champions Cup qualification too.
Now, they have the opportunity to strengthen their lead by maximising their points haul in Newport, as they seek to earn the home semi-final that would render their chances of winning this competition all the more realistic.
They also have the chance to strengthen their squad depth; the dove-tailing of play-makers Bill Johnston and Tyler Bleyendaal, for example, will begin the strenuous attempts of the backroom staff to develop the squad's attack for the challenges in April and May.
Their inclusions are amongst 13 changes made from the side who prevailed against Exeter last weekend, with only Mike Haley and Jean Kleyn retained; utility forward Fineen Wycherley will also seek to enhance his growing reputation.
Darren Sweetnam, Dan Goggin and Ronan O'Mahony have another chance to press their claims behind the scrum, where it often feels Munster's improvement still remains paramount.
With 11 players away on Irish duty, Munster's depth up front will also be tested, even allowing for the presence of Kleyn, Arno Botha, Rhys Marshall and veteran stalwart Billy Holland.
Liam O'Connor is set to make his first appearance of the season off the bench after a long-term knee injury with Academy man Gavin Coombes also among the replacements.
Dragons - J Williams; J Rosser, T Morgan, J Dixon, W Talbot-Davies; J Lewis, R Williams; B Harris, R Hibbard (capt), L Fairbrother, J Davies, M Screech, H Keddie, N Cudd, O Griffiths. Reps: R Lawrence, R Fawcett, D Suter, L Evans, T Basham, R Davies, J Tovey, Z Kirchner.
Munster - M Haley; D Sweetnam, D Goggin, T Bleyendaal (capt), R O'Mahony; B Johnston, A Mathewson; J Loughman, R Marshall, S Archer, J Kleyn, B Holland, F Wycherley, C Oliver, A Botha.
Reps: K O'Byrne, L O'Connor, C Parker, D O'Shea, G Coombes, N Cronin, C Nash, J Taute.
Ref - Ben Blain (SRU)
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